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Pat Hager had built a successful second career focusing on senior travel, but then ran into a challenge: her aging clientele was increasingly hesitant to book vacations because they had no one to travel with.
“When I got into the travel business a dozen years ago, a lot of my business came from my friends,” said Hager, owner of Where to Next Travel in Escondido, California. “As we got older together, the dynamic started to change. Their spouses and friends passed away and some could no longer travel easily. There were cancellations.”
Even those who could travel alone, often did not want to pay the hefty single supplements required on most tours and cruises. Increasingly, clients began asking Hager if she could find them someone to travel with.
“I told them I’m a travel agent and that’s not what I do,” she said. “But I got on online and tried to find a service that would help them. Some of the travel matching sites I looked into were really more like dating sites. I did find a few sites in Australia and England, but I needed something closer to home.”
So Hager, with the help of her granddaughter, a web designer, launched a travel matching site last spring called Senior Travel Buddy. The service enables seniors to sign up and search for potential travel companions.
A startup idea
Senior Travel Buddy users provide personal profile information by answering 28 questions about how they like to travel. They are then matched with local, same-sex singles and can review their profiles. If they find some they’d like to connect with, they pay a fee of $5.99 per month to get in touch with potential matches.
Growing the site, which currently has 237 regular users, is proving to be a challenge.
“I’m getting more participants every week and it’s made a difference for some clients, but more people need to find out about it,” she said. “You really need thousands of people to make a site like this work. Otherwise there’s not enough selection. This is where I’m getting stuck.”
A recent boost in visibility came when Hager won the Entrepreneur of the Year award for Senior Travel Buddy at the recent global convention of the American Society of Travel Advisors during a Shark Tank-style competition. Hager plans to use the $10,000 prize money for marketing the site.
She’s also encouraging suppliers she works with, including cruise lines such as Princess and Holland America, to refer people to Senior Travel Buddy.
“If I can get enough interest going, I can also ask them to advertise on my site,” she said. She already advertises her own agency services on the site, including tours she is putting together.
Along with interest from clients, Hager is hearing from other travel agents in the Southern California region who are referring it to their own clients. Currently the site does not offer agents referral fees, but she’s considering offering them in the future.
However, in the past few years there have been several lead-generation sites for travel agencies, and none of them were particularly successful.
Despite the challenges, Hager enjoys focusing on the senior market and has found it to be a rewarding niche.
“It’s a demographic that is growing rapidly and has money,” she said. “A lot of my clients have been traveling for many years and they don’t want to stop.”
Travel is a second career for Hager, an independent, home-based agent affiliated with the Nexion host network. She previously owned a medical transcription company.
“After selling my business in 2004, I wanted to chill for a bit and travel, which I’ve always loved to do,” she said. “Friends and family started asking me to book vacations for them, so I started doing that. In 2007, I put my hat in the ring, joined ASTA and started from there.”
Handling the needs of senior travelers means taking care of many details to ensure safety and comfort.
“It’s different than just booking a cruise or tour—you may need to call the cruise line to make sure the client has a shower chair,” she said. “Arranging for transfers is very important and also considering the location of the hotel. Being close to the train station or other transportation hub takes on huge importance, as long transfers are expensive.”
Hotel location became paramount when arranging a trip for an older client who wanted to follow the Rolling Stones on a concert tour around Europe.
“He went to five or six Stones concerts during a two-week period, so I needed to find him convenient train connections and hotels that weren’t too far away from the station,” Hager said.
Another big consideration is travel insurance, which Hager makes a point of selling to older clients.
“After you get to be 60, you are very likely to have a pre-existing condition and a lot of cruise lines will not cover that,” she said. “You can lose a lot of money if you cancel. Travel insurance is not a frill.”